Russia launches new ground assault in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region | CBC News

Ukraine rushed reinforcements to its northeastern Kharkiv region on Friday to hold off a Russian attempt to breach local defences, authorities said, signalling a tactical switch in the war, by Moscow, that Ukrainian officials had been expecting for weeks.

Kharkiv’s regional governor, Oleh Syniehubov, said intense overnight shelling targeted Vovchansk, a city with a pre-war population of about 20,000 that is less than five kilometres from the Russian border. The barrage, which used powerful guided aerial bombs, artillery, rockets, tanks and mortars, killed at least one civilian and wounded five others, prompting authorities to begin evacuating about 3,000 people.

Then, around dawn, Russian infantry tried to penetrate Ukrainian defences near Vovchansk, the Ukrainian Defence Ministry said, adding that it had deployed reserve units to fend off the attack.

Local residents from Vovchansk, Ukraine, and nearby villages sit on a bus during an evacuation to Kharkiv due to Russian shelling on Friday. (Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Reuters)

Russian military bloggers said the assault could mark the start of a Russian attempt to carve out a “buffer zone” that Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to create earlier this year to halt frequent Ukrainian attacks on Belgorod and other Russian border regions.

By mid-afternoon, Ukrainian troops were still holding firm against the assault, Syniehubov said.

“Active combat is ongoing in the settlements located one to two kilometres away” from the Russian border, he told Ukrainian television.

Build-up had been observed

Ukraine previously said it was aware that Russia was assembling thousands of troops along the northeastern border, close to the Kharkiv and Sumy regions. Although Russia’s most recent ground offensive had been focused on parts of eastern Ukraine farther south, Ukrainian intelligence officials said they had expected an attack in the northeast, too. The Kremlin’s forces stepped up their bombardment of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in late March.

A bearded man in a green shirt speaks at a podium
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is seen speaking in Kyiv on Friday. The Ukrainian leader has said Russia could be preparing a big offensive push this spring or summer. (Maksym Muzychenko-Kishka/Reuters)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine’s military had anticipated this latest attack and had calibrated its response.

“Now there is a fierce battle in this direction,” Zelenskyy was quoted as saying by Ukraine’s public broadcaster Suspilne.

The White House said the United States had been co-ordinating closely with Ukraine on Russia’s Kharkiv offensive.

“It is certainly possible that the Russians are setting themselves up for a larger assault on Kharkiv,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters.

Though Russia likely couldn’t capture Kharkiv without a massive buildup of troops and armour, it could compel Ukraine to send more troops to the region, leaving other areas of the country more vulnerable. Forcing Ukrainian authorities to evacuate civilians will also likely cause disruptions and divert resources.

The Russian military could also try to cut key supply routes in the area and try to blockade Kharkiv, which is home to roughly 1.1 million people and is only about 30 kilometres south of the border.

The Kremlin’s forces are seeking to exploit Ukraine’s shortages of ammunition and manpower after the flow of Western military aid to Kyiv tapered off in recent months and before promised new support arrives.

“Not all of our partners are currently fulfilling the agreements in a timely manner,” said Zelenskyy, though he didn’t specify which, in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Friday.

The Ukrainian army is on the defensive along the roughly 1,000-kilometre front line and is scrambling to build fortified defensive lines ahead of what officials believe will be a bigger Russian offensive. Ukraine’s forces are outnumbered in infantry, armour and ammunition.

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In the opening days of the war, Russia made a botched attempt to quickly storm Kharkiv, but retreated from its outskirts a month later. Seven months after that, Ukraine’s army pushed the Kremlin’s forces out of Kharkiv in the fall of 2022. The bold counterattack helped persuade Western countries that Ukraine could defeat Russia on the battlefield and merited military support.

In Vovchansk, local officials said the Russian assault had damaged numerous buildings.

“The entire town is under massive shelling now. It is not safe to stay here,” Vovchansk administration head Tamaz Hambarishvili told Ukraine’s Hromadske Radio.

The Ukrainian Defence Ministry said fighting against Russian sabotage and reconnaissance groups had continued into the afternoon.

Drones strike inside Russia

Meanwhile, Russian officials said a Ukrainian long-range drone struck an oil refinery inside Russia on Friday. The drone hit a refinery near the city of Kaluga, southwest of Moscow, setting four oil storage tanks ablaze, according to Vladislav Shapsha, the regional governor. He said there were no casualties.

The Russian Defence Ministry said air defences downed seven Ukrainian drones early Friday in the Moscow, Bryansk and Belgorod regions.

The attack Friday came a day after one on a petrochemical facility in what appears to have been Ukraine’s deepest strike into Russia. A senior official in Russia’s Bashkortostan region, about 1,300 kilometres from the Ukrainian border, said Thursday’s drone strike in the city of Salavat caused a fire at the petrochemical facility.

The Russian Emergencies Ministry said that a pumping station building on refinery land was damaged, but there was no fire. Ukrainian military intelligence refused to comment.

Ukraine has repeatedly targeted refineries, hoping to disrupt the Kremlin’s war machine. Russia is one of the world’s biggest oil producers.

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